I’ve worked in human services all my career – with kids with problems; with kids and adults with mental health problems and/or lifelong disabilities; with people who, often as a result of the institutional abuse and neglect they have experienced, have been stuck with ‘extremely challenging’ reputations; in and with devalued and impoverished communities – and can assert, without reservation, that none of the above has been successfully assisted to a better life by service interventions alone. Indeed, the experiences of every working day deepen my conviction that many folk who are dependent upon the good offices of public services alone, are both lonely and vulnerable.
Over 40+ years I’ve learned that there are few circumstances that cannot be remedied, or at least ameliorated, when our service response is ‘person-shaped’ as John Seddon so aptly puts it; primarily concerned with helping each person to describe and pursue their ‘them-shaped’ solutions in the context of their family, friends and associations – their social capital.
Until recently, this would have been an explicit description of social work. Then our starting point was a case history rather than a predetermined assessment of needs and deficits – where the need to demonstrate fairness in determining relative entitlement has priority (albeit unintentionally) over helping people make the best of their situations. And to do that, we need to take time to get to know what each person, family or communityreally wants, by listening in order to understand, by supporting them to take power and responsibility, by recognising and utilising the power of relationships and social capital.Listening and critical friendship are, for me, at the core of the co-production relationship, regardless of whether your partner on the journey is an individual or a community.
Public services systems are, in the main, not concerned with listening, let alone challenging thinking and generating multiple possible solutions. They pay lip service to self-determination, autonomy and the abundance of gifts, talents, ingenuity, tenacity, resourcefulness and energy that still, despite our ever more pervasive consumer culture, inhabit our communities. And then they continue to systematically contaminate civil society (i.e. citizens acting in voluntary association) with mechanistic assessments and standardised solutions reinforced with arbitrary penalties for non-compliance. John O’Brien has dubbed this approach Cogworld. Indisputably, the imposition of the market on public services has been a major factor in this dysfunction, promulgating the dangerous myth that both public services and institutions are there to do our living for us.
Time was when citizens who come together with a common goal of improving some aspect of their lives, might solicit a grant from their community (administered by their local authority) in order to benefit that community. We are now at the stage of commodification of services where citizens can only bid, in competition, to provide services that have been previously specified by someone else – the Commissioner. If Commissioners are impressed with your idea they may ask you to write a specification for a competitive tender for the provision of your idea, and then permit you to bid for it if your little association meets pre-tender requirements which may include having a strong balance sheet, secure financial history and insurance for millions of pounds. The Commissioner is, however, just as likely to take your idea, mangle it, compromise its principles, let that contract, and tell you that what you have promoted is being done. The simple idea – that it might be sensible to stay flexible and to back initiatives that can demonstrate the support of the people or communities they are designed to help – seems just too simple.
At LivesthroughFriends we know that just about everyone has gifts and talents, a need to contribute, and gnawing desire to really take control of their own situation. As we’ve turned our principles into action we’ve been helped by so many others on the same journey – people who see real value in what folk can do and contribute. We wear many labels: co-producers, time bankers, network/circle builders, ABCD-ers, Local Area Coordinators, promoters of Self Direction and Individual Budgets, Systems Thinkers and Creative Thinkers etc. Whatever the term, we are strengths-based thinkers and doers.
Thanks and acknowledgements are due to far too many individuals and organizations to list but must include the folk at PLAN, GoMAD Thinking, Vanguard Thinking Systems, ABCD Institute, The Centre for Welfare Reform, and so many more – especially the people who have helped us help them.